By Betty Glad, Olin D. Johnston Professor of Political Science, University of South Carolina

When presenting the results of the Camp David talks to the U.S. Congress on September 18, 1978, President Jimmy Carter noted that it had been 2,000 years since there was peace between Egypt and a free Jewish nation and that such a peace might be secured that year. The Camp David Accords were a chance for one of the brightest moments in history. Sadly, Carter's expectations at that euphoric moment were never quite met, and today peace in the Middle East remains a distant hope.

Substantial Results Subverted by Extremists

That does not change the fact that the results of the Camp David talks were substantial and historic: the return of the Sinai to Egypt, the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt, and a framework for guiding the subsequent negotiations on Palestinian self-governance and relationship to Israel.

The problem lies not in what happened at Camp David, but what has failed to happen since. Though peace between Egypt and Israel has held, the framework for the Palestinian negotiations had no serious follow through until Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo Accords in 1993. But even as the two sides grew closer to a resolution of their differences, the extremists in both camps subverted the process. The Israelis created new settlements in the West Bank; from among the Palestinians suicide bombers emerged who would self-immolate in order to kill Israelis.

Today, the end of their efforts seems to be forgotten as they exchange claims and counter claims that the other party has engaged in the unlawful use of force and must control it before they can be expected to negotiate. This cycle of despair reached a new low in 2002, leading many to conclude that the peace process itself is dead.

Reaching for the Possible

Could this all have been avoided in the late 1970s? Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of Germany suggested in his 1990 memoirs that the separate peace between Israel and Egypt was probably not a good idea. The problems of the Middle East, he argued, were too complex for isolated solutions.

In opting for a phased solution to problems in the Middle East, however, Jimmy Carter was only reaching for the possible. Both Israel and Egypt had an interest in a resolution of their differences. Egypt sought the return of the Sinai occupied by Israel after the 1967 war. Israel sought enhanced security with the break in a solid Arab front, as Egypt became the first Arab state to recognize its legitimacy.

As subsequent events would make clear, the broader issue of Palestinian self rule could not be resolved at the time. But Carter made a reasonable assumption that the framework for peace agreed upon at Camp David, executed in an environment minus the tension between Israel and Egypt, would pave the way for successful resolution of the Palestine issue down the road. The goals agreed to at that time were Palestinian autonomy and the withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from the West Bank and Gaza. It was also agreed that Jordanian and Palestinian representatives would participate in the talks to determine the status of the occupied territories.

Even this step-by-step approach was seen as wildly ambitious at the time, and some advisors counseled Carter not to risk his presidency on the Middle East. As the 13 days at Camp David demonstrated, no agreement would have emerged without Carter's determination and deep personal involvement. Israeli Defense Minister Ezer Weizman later noted that Carter had earned his respect "with his bulldog-like persistence and his ability to deal with the tiniest details." Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan testified, "Were it not for him... I do not see that there would have been a possibility of arriving at this agreement."

How the Camp David Negotiators Succeeded

At Camp David, Carter showed a strategic sense, flexibility and sensitivity in his dealings with others that were not always evident in his approach to foreign policy. Shifting from the mediator role he first envisaged for himself, he became the chief diplomat in two simultaneous but in some ways separate U.S. negotiations with Israel and Egypt. He knew when to play the "U.S. relations" card, suggesting to both Sadat and the members of the Israeli team, as warranted, that should their actions blow up the conference, their relations with the U.S. would be imperiled. Three times he personally intervened, using insight he had garnered from a CIA report on the personalities of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to keep them from leaving the conference.

The talks succeeded not only by Carter's virtuoso performance. The agreement was reached with the help of the resourceful and stalwart contributions of several negotiating partners. Near the beginning of the conference Sadat informed Carter that his bottom line was much more reasonable than the one the Egyptians formally presented at the opening. Moreover, Sadat courageously stood up to his own delegation, including the Egyptian foreign minister, who would resign even before the Camp David Accords were signed. Members of the Israeli negotiating team -- Defense Minister Ezer Weizman, Attorney General Aharon Barak and Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan -- also displayed doggedness and imagination, pushing the negotiations forward by advising the Americans on what issues to play and how to deal with Begin.

In fact, one final sticking point, the dissolution of Israeli settlements in the Sinai, was only resolved with a play around Begin. General Abraham Tamir of the Israel delegation called his close friend, Agricultural Minister and Israeli war hero Ariel Sharon, in Israel. When informed that these settlements were the only block to a deal, the hard-liner called Begin to assure him it was all right to compromise on the issue to avoid the failure of the entire conference.

Closing the Deal

The near intractability of the problems confronted at Camp David became apparent even before the ink was dry on the Accords. The Americans thought Begin had agreed to give President Carter a separate letter stating that Israel would establish no new settlements on the West Bank or in Gaza during the completion of the autonomy negotiations, to be concluded within five years. But Begin's letter to Carter on these settlements referred to a freeze only for the duration of the peace talks with Egypt -- just three months. Carter returned the letter to Begin, saying it was unacceptable. Then the negotiations over the return of the Sinai went beyond the three months provided for in the agreement. Only after Secretary of State Cyrus Vance visited the Middle East several times and the president traveled there once could the deal be finalized.

On March 26, six months after the Camp David talks, Carter capped his effort with a triumphant signing ceremony in Washington -- before 1,600 invited guests on the White House lawn. Soon after, Senator William Roth, a Delaware Republican, sponsored a resolution that Carter be recommended for the Nobel Peace Prize for his effort. But Sadat and Begin were awarded the prize that year. Two and a half decades later, in 2002, Carter finally received the peace prize, in part for his accomplishments at Camp David.

Stalled Progress

Signing the accordOnce again, the euphoria of the moment was short-lived. Forward motion on the Palestine-Israeli issues stalled as the Begin government pursued a continuing settlement policy that would make a comprehensive agreement even more difficult. In late October, Begin announced plans for the expansion of West Bank settlements and revealed he was thinking of moving his office to East Jerusalem. Opposing the increasingly hard line of the Israeli Likud Party's government, Ezer Weizman, who had done so much to forward progress at Camp David, resigned in 1980 as Defense Minister. Indeed, it was the peace agreement with Egypt which would free Israel, now relatively secure along part of its border, to intervene in Lebanon in 1982, moving all the way up to Lebanon in an attempt to drive the Palestinians out of that county.

Nor did other Arab leaders follow Sadat's example of coming to terms with Israel. In fact, the political isolation Sadat suffered as a result of his decision to deal with Israel might have served as a warning to other Arab leaders thinking of doing the same. On October 6, 1981, Sadat paid for Camp David with his life, assassinated in a hail of automatic gun fire at a military parade in Cairo.

Stopping the Downward Cycle

But does all this mean that the Camp David Accords were a waste of time, a fleeting moment of hope without lasting value? The answer must be no, if only because things might have turned out far worse if the effort had failed. The Accords did stop a downward cycle in hostilities that could have had even more negative consequences for the Middle East.

A month before the talks, the positive impact of Anwar Sadat's bold trip to Jerusalem the preceding November had evaporated. Begin and Sadat were exchanging hostile remarks. Saudi Arabia was pressuring Sadat to reconcile his differences with Syria's Hafez Assad, a hard-liner in the Middle East conflict. Such reconciliation could have brought Sadat back into the radical Arab bloc, thereby increasing the likelihood of another round of Middle East wars, a resurgence of Soviet influence in the area, and a possible oil embargo against the United States.

At the bottom of the slope, in short, a renewed conflict in the Middle East and Soviet intervention were distinct possibilities. Camp David arrested that cycle, avoided a major war, and offered proof that peace was a real possibility in the troubled region.

The Best Path to Peace?

Furthermore, the framework negotiated at Camp David may yet be vindicated as the best path to peace. The only really palatable settlement of the Palestine problem, as Carter realized at the time, would have to be based on some compromise balancing Israeli security with a recognition of the right of Palestine to self governance. The other options, he noted in his book The Blood of Abraham, would be either Israeli domination of a hostile people or the forcible annexation of the area in which the Arabs would be given the right to vote -- a situation that would threaten the very identity of the Jewish state. Almost 25 years ago Jimmy Carter understood that these were the alternatives in the Middle East.

It is to his credit that he had the courage and intelligence required to advance a dream of peace. Israel and Palestine face the same options today, in the fall of 2002, and if peace is ever to come to that region, it will be achieved not by extremists on both sides, but by statesmen of the caliber at work in those Maryland woods nearly twenty-five years ago.

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